Nothing is quite what it seems at Cheeseburn… from the moment you stroll into the gardens of this beautiful Northumberland country house. There’s a surprise around every corner.
Expect the unexpected wherever you venture – from the lush manicured lawns to the potting shed, and even the old chapel which is the setting for a collection of hundreds of fragile glass ships in bottles.
There are mirrored art installations which play tricks with your eyes – and even a strange blue-faced fairy creature who appears and disappears behind tall hedges and ancient trees.
Cheeseburn’s Pleasure Grounds
Cheeseburn is the brainchild of Joanna and Simon Riddell who shared a vision to turn their country house and gardens into a sculpture park. It is particularly special because it’s only open 14 days every year.
At first sight, it looks like any conventional country estate. There’s a splendid historic house with lawns, flower beds, a ha-ha ditch, pleasure gardens and woodlands.
But look closer and you’re in for a few surprises…
What exactly is that strange, hanging sculpture in the stables which lights up and pulsates with glowing beams of pink light?
It looks like a creature from outer space has landed and invaded this dark space – straight out of the pages of a John Wyndham sci-fi novel.
It could be a statement on climate change – or perhaps it’s simply an intriguing shape which fuses light and lightweight materials?
In the adjoining stable, there is a less abstract work featuring two dancers who appear to have escaped from a painting by Degas or Toulouse Lautrec.
Their sinewy bodies are perfectly captured against a plain backdrop which emphasise every twist and contorted turn of their arms and legs.
I like both of these works which are amongst some of the more conventional pieces at Cheeseburn Sculpture Park.
The Walled Garden
Leaving the main stable block, there’s a ‘figure of eight’ walk which takes you deep into the heart of Cheeseburn’s gardens and woods past a variety of unusual art works. This is where things start to get really interesting.
First stop is the walled garden where there’s a lot of monkey business going on with a series of sculptures of primates sitting on plinths in a variety of poses.
At the far end of the garden, one of the monkeys has escaped and sits on top of the portico which is an ideal spot to bask in the sun and enjoy a good view of the sculptures on the lawn.
Even if you’re not an art lover, there’s much to enjoy in the walled garden including beautiful flowers and plants including azaleas, rhodendrons and camelias.
One of the largest blooms is an art work in its own right – and resembles one of Georgia O’Keefe’s gorgeous flower paintings.
The sensory experience in the walled garden is mind-blowing and it’s worth lingering here to take in the sounds, sights and perfumed aromas.
The art is a real talking point here so take your time to have a good look around and debate the meaning of the monkey sculptures.
Walled Garden Photo Gallery – click to view
‘Sunken’ Woodland Garden
From the walled garden we move along the sunken ‘cave walk’ where more surprises await us at every twist and turn of the path.
The walk is surrounded on all sides with tall, mature trees from where you’ll emerge at two interesting spaces including an old family burial ground.
As you make your way through the shaded woods, look out for a selection of site-specific art works designed to complement this woodland environment.
The sunken woodland walk is a highlight of any trip to Cheeseburn and I’m delighted to see many new and intriguing works placed amongst the trees.
Look out for a few ‘hidden’ works high in the canopy including a bright red target which looks like a lost metal kite.
And then there’s the giant alphabet letters which stride across the top of the sunken ditch with their message about unity and togetherness. A comment on troubling Brexit times, perhaps?
As you emerge back into the main garden, you’ll discover some fantastic pieces of art in the trees above you including Colin Rose’s coiled ball precariously perched on a high branch.
Another intiguing work by Colin Rose takes the form of a giant-sized ‘acorn’ which hovers in the trees as if it’s an integral part of the landscape.
They’re reminiscent of Andy Goldsworthy’s landscape art, another artist whom I’m sure they’d love to attract to Cheeseburn in the near future.
The Lawned Garden
Back on the lush lawn at the centre of the gardens, something else weird is happening… starting with a strange diorama of figures which looks like a cross between a scene from Tintin’s Adventures and a Max Ernst painting.
But lurking in the nearby potting shed, things are about to get a whole load stranger as you squeeze through a small opening and emerge into a mini-art gallery populated by small sculptures.
Dominating the shed is a sculpture of a silver figure by Joseph Hillier which one teenage visitor remarked was “a whole lot like Freddie Mercury”.
At the far end of the shed there are silver painted stones which look vaguely like moon rocks glowing in the gloom.
It’s funny but the actual garden pots in the shed look like art works amidst this bunch of ‘real sculptures’ – with their perfectly cone shapes stacked in geometric piles!
Potting Shed and Garden – Photo Gallery
Climate change and worries about the future of the world’ environment have dominated the news for much of this year so it’s good to see how artists are responding to the crisis.
One of my favourite artists on display at Cheeseburn is Clare Townley who provides us with a new way of looking at our world in a series of small and larger pieces.
Clare Townley’s most dramatic piece is located in a small woodland where she has created a large-scale dystopian installation called ‘Plastic Friend’.
It was a huge bonus that the artist was on hand to talk to us about her work. It’s refreshing to hear a young artist talk so honestly about her creation without any conceptual clap trap.
She also invited visitors to sit on the swing at the centre of this thought-provoking piece – and ponder ‘what future?’.
This could be our ‘plastic world’ with a planet increasingly dominated by discarded plastic. An ominous buzzing sound was also emitting from one of the rubbish bins at the centre of the installation which added an air of foreboding.
‘Plastic Friend’ Photo Gallery
Cheeseburn is brilliant at commissioning art works which sit perfectly in the landscape around the house, whether it’s in the formal garden or in sheds and adjacent fields.
‘Still life’ is a theme which repeats itself as you wander around the edge of the lawned gardens at the front of the house.
There are also works which play with the idea of formal landscapes and how they are framed including a blue picture frame which picks out the traditional country house style of landscape gardening.
This art work reminded me of Peter Greenaway’s beautiful film ‘The Draughtsman’s Contract’ – it’s all about geometry and lines.
Cheeseburn – of course – has the great advantage that it has an incredibly designed historic estate which wouldn’t look out of place in that very period movie.
Right across the Cheeseburn estate, the artists have made great use of the many different landscapes from the manicured gardens to the the outbuildings, sheds and walls.
Click on the photo gallery below to see have they’ve exploited the different areas of the estate to great effect, often using materials that complement the environment including wood, brick and stone.
Cheeseburn – Photo Gallery
Reflections in Glass
For many people, the highlight of Cheeseburn is a visit to the chapel where artist Ayako Tani has created the most fragile of environments with over a hundred glass ships in bottles perched on the stalls.
It’s an impressive sight and one of the most visually impressive pieces at Cheeseburn this year.
The chapel of St Francis Xavier was built in 1820 and the designer was John Dobson… but he could never have imagined seeing it full of delicate glass pieces!
But where did Tani’s idea come from? She was quick to tell me about her project which is really fascinating.
Tani has created something very unusual which draws on the North East of England’s traditions of ships and glass making, particularly in Wearside.
Since the early 1960s, glass ships in bottles have been made in Sunderland by redundant glassblowers from the local Pyrex factory which once led the work in glass production.
The project is called ‘Vessels of Memory: Glass Ships in Bottles’ and Tani aims to highlight Sunderland’s glass history by building a collection of these vintage glass ships in bottles
She also learnt how to make glass ship in bottles in order to preserve these skills for the future and create a new series of artworks. What a fantastic project.
Two great things about the Cheeseburn Open Days are that you can buy selected art works and there’s an opportunity to see new artists showcased in the upper Hayloft Gallery.
After perusing the student art works and voting for the best one, don’t miss the small cafe which sells the best ever Strawberry Victoria Sponge cake I’ve ever had.
On your way out, be sure to drop in to the craft makers’ area where there are interesting local producers including this business called Handmade making lamps and decorative items from recycled wood.
Their pieces even come with a back history of the wood – mahogany from an old lift in Newcastle the case of my heart-shaped lamp!
Whilst you’re wandering around the grounds, there are wonderful views of the main house at Cheeseburn which is not open to the public… but it’s a sight to behold.
Cheeseburn has a rich history dating from the 13th Century and was originally the grange or farm of the Augustinian Priory in Hexham.
After the dissolution of the monasteries in 1536, Cheeseburn Grange became the properly of the Crown and was leased to Gawen Swinburne and his family.
In the mid 18th Century it was passed down to the current Riddell family and was remodelled by the famous Newcastle architect John Dobson in 1820.
Reflections in Light
If you walk around the perimeter of the main house, you’ll find some really interesting works which reflect the house’s setting.
My favourite is a colourful, reflective light work in the small area of trees in front of the house which shimmers with blues, greens and purples
The installation hangs high in the trees above you and the light patterns change depending on the time of day, the weather and the season.
The dappled effect created is mesmerising – like a rainbow streaking across this clump of trees. Quite beautiful.
I was also struck by another couple of reflective art works made from a variety of materials including this fascinating piece with a multi-coloured interior which seems to change as the light shifts.
Light installations – Photo Gallery
Cheeseburn is full of surprises and doesn’t rest on its laurels. This year sees international artist David Mach return to the house to create something new which is currently under wraps.
There are signs that it’s something to do with this car installation – and Mach will be working on it in person during the summer if you want to ask him about his work. I can’t wait.
It’s another example of Cheeseburn having a big vision for the future. Every year seems to bring more and more interesting artists to the house and its gardens.
Cheeseburn is a fascinating place to visit, whatever you think of the contemporary art. There’s always something surprising to see…
I never did find out what the strange blue elf creature was doing darting around the grounds. But that’s the mystery and joy of Cheeseburn!
Top Visitor Tips – Cheeseburn
Cheeseburn is open for six weekends throughout the year, mainly Bank Holidays in Spring and Summer from 11:00-16:00.
The 2019 opening dates are:
Cheeseburn is located 10 miles wets of Newcastle upon Tyne on the B6324. It’s 10 miles east of Hexham and 4 miles wet of Ponteland. The closest village is Stamfordham.
There is plenty of on site peaking.
Entry is free but donations are welcome.
No dogs, picnics and ball games – for obvious reasons.
The 16 featured artists include Lucian Anderson, Lisa Delarny, Erin Dickson, Brigitte Jurack, Peter Hanmer, Joseph Hillier, Bennett Hogg, David Mach, Becky MacKenzie, Keith Roberts, Jeff Sarmiento, Ayako Tani, Clare Townley, Olivia Turner, Cate Watkinson and Alice Wilson.
Look out for pop-up performances and blue faced elves!